Practice leading a life based in freedom, community, service and adventure.

A group of young people pose for a gap year program photo, looking hip and silly


12 participants age 18-24; plus our staff team.

High Desert Folks who thrive in our programs tend to align with the following and be excited about growing in this way. Is this you?

  • You want to choose rather than follow directions
  • You care about other people’s choice and well-being and are willing to stay in the conversation until an option is found that works for all.
  • You are committed to transcending or changing unhealthy power dynamics or behavioral patterns
  • You are happy eating healthy local food and drinking simply water.
  • You value consent and deep connection. You are willing to be authentic and vulnerable.
  • You are reasonably self sufficient, for example, you don’t need others to wake you up in the morning or give you your meds or remember your flashlight or wash your dishes.
  • You are insatiably curious about lots of things.
  • You are ok, maybe even happy roughing it. This means sometimes being cold and wet. It means not showering often and peeing and pooping outside.
  • The idea of walking 100 miles in 5 days sounds fun and realistic for your body.
  • With some guidance, you would be willing to go into the woods for 48 hours with essentially nothing.
  • You are willing to question addictions to pleasure and comfort and distraction, and instead hold out for deep transformative moments, even if it means periods of discomfort or lack of control or not knowing or boredom.
  • You are doing this program because you choose it, not because your parents think it’s a good idea.
  • You are interested in ways of living that are non-conventional.
  • When you read and sign our form about agreements, values and intentions, you really mean it. You really choose to be drug free, to do your share, to show up and so forth.
Lake Atilan and the docks in front of the volcano San Pedro in Giatemala


We begin in the mountains and farms near Paonia, Colorado.  We then travel overland through Utah, Arizona, and the length of Mexico.

An outdoor gap year program adventure, four smiling teens are backpacking with mountains in the background.


Aug 6 to Nov 17, 2025.  We end the program in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Then, you will have options to stay longer, go home or keep traveling south.

young man smiling on the side of the road with his thumb up, hitchhiking


Sliding Scale $11,000 to $15,000.  All inclusive, although you must get to Colorado and home from Oaxaca on your own dime.



What we'll do

The first nine weeks we'll be based out of our student-built campus in Colorado.  The goal is to learn and practice important skills for living the good life.  Challenges include picking a place far away on a map and walking there, as well as swaping inspiration with strangers, sleeping on the street and going with nothing into the wilderness for a couple days and nights.  You will also create plans for your life that inspire you, dance around a fire, practice being real and connecting deeply.  You will climp mountains, slaughter chickens and busk for food.  You will live simply and outside. You will make group decisions about what to do and then do it.  You will follow and you will lead. You will become more of yourself.

In October we will drive south in our colorful bus.  We will see ancient pueblo ruins, camp on the side of the road, and hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in a day.  We will camp among Saguaro within sight of the border fence with Mexico.  We will explore and learn about place and then venture across the border for homestays in a small dirt street ejido in Sonora, Mexico.  From there, we cross Mexico on public buses, stopping where you've planned, until we arrive in Oaxaca.  There you will take Spanish classes, learn the culture, and prepare for your adventures that will begin once the program has ended. By then you will have the skills to stay on in Oaxaca, keep traveling south to Guatemala, or return home or to a job.  It's up to you.

A possible Itinerary.

Schedules always change as we take advantage of opportunities and adjust to individual needs and world happenings, but something like the following is likely:

The first nine weeks are based at our campus in Paonia,  Colorado.

Each week we have four days of challenges followed by two free days and a community day.  Each week will also include regular individual and group check-ins and group process, co-creating good local-based meals, Spanish, Communication skills, fun games and connection, and some self-reflection and journaling.
  • Week 1.  The bus picks up people in Denver and elsewhere and we arrive in Paonia.  We go deep right away and share our stories around a campfire.  We explore the town and meet inspiring neighbors.  We camp out, pick peaches and hike in the Gunnison Gorge.
  • Week 2.  We learn and practice backpacking skills and emergency first aid.  The goal is that you're ready to adventure and able to respond well in adverse conditions!  We climb a high peak.
  • Week 3.  We meet more inspiring people and get to know their lifestyles and values while working beside them.  Maybe we buck hay or pick tomatoes or cut firewood.  We have conversations about how we want to lead our lives.
  • Week 4.  Backpacking adventure.  Each small group picks on a map in the wilderness that is at least 30 miles away and walks there, and then walks or hitchhikes home.
  • Week 5.  The art and science of connecting to strangers.  We take on a number of challenges that involve meeting new people and learning from them as well as sharing inspiration and stories.  We also find potential mentors for ourselves and jobs and options for after the program.
  • Week 6.  The minimalist challenge.  We spend a couple days preparing and then go into the wilderness with only a blanket and the most basic survival gear that we make ourselves (out of what we find in the woods and dumpsters).
  • Week 7.  Self-design challenge.  Small groups create their own big epic challenges and then do them.
  • Week 8.  In small groups, after learning some safe ways to sneak sleep in towns, find food in towns, busk and hitchhike, all get blindfolded and brought in small groups to another town 1-3 hours away.  The challenge is to get food, serve others, be safe, sleep and so forth before making your way home.
  • Week 9.  Learn skills of international travel and plan our trip through Mexico.  We pack up, jump into the bus and go.

The next 6 weeks are on the Road

  • Week 10.  Camp and hike in Utah Canyons.  Find and visit Ancestral Ruins.  Learn about and spend time in tThe Navajo Nation.  Hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in a day.
  • Week 11.  Drive south and camp in the Desert in Organ Pipe National Monument.  Visit the border fence and talk to people about border politics.  Learning about water issues in the West and Desert Ecology. Cross into Mexico.
  • Week 12.  Homestays in Sonora, Mexico.  Spanish.  Mexican politics and history and culture.  Bird ecology and bird banding.  The Colorado River Delta.
  • Week 13.  Travel in Mexico from Sonora to Oaxaca, over 3000 kilometers of travel on public buses with a couple stops in locations you have chosen, maybe Mexico city or the beach or Guadelejara?
  • Week 14.  Oaxaca.  We get to know the place and culture and take Spanish lessons. We firm up our individual goals and travel plans for after the program.
  • Week 15.  We take a short trip outside of Oaxaca, maybe to the jungle or to a beach then say  Good-byes.  Everyone moves on to the next stage of their journey.  Some members of the group will likely stay in Oaxaca or keep traveling in Mexico or central America; others will fly home or to a job that they’ve arranged during the program.

Who we'll be

We have chosen challenges and adventures that will deepen skills and also shake up the assumptions and habits in your life so that you are more likely to thrive, to be true to your values, effective in your actions, and delighting in your moments.

Each challenge is an excuse to practice being real, seen and valued, to practice liking yourself and knowing you're capable.  It's a time to practice making the things you believe into reality, caring for yourself and others, and deeply connecting to other people and the natural world.

Each challenge will require us to practice communicating effectively and deeply while creating positive change in the world.

Each challenge begins with your consent and doing the work to align the challenge with your inner sense of safety and connection.  Then we leap and often must practice being okay in the face of discomfort, emotions, or not knowing what will happen.

We are not ones to settle for "shoulds" and "have tos" and "if onlys?"  Instead we hold out for the magic of knowing that going deeper is always possible.  Once you experience it, there is no going back.

People tell us that compared to other gap year programs:

  • Our adventures are more homespun.  If we take a river trip for instance, we are not hiring guides and using conventional boats.  Instead, we are more like Huckleberry Finn and making our own rafts out of "trash."  If we travel in Mexico, it's on second class public buses rather than airplanes and private transportation.
  • We focus more on personal growth, communication skills, and creating an environment where we can be real, honest and safe.
  • We worry less about liability and do things that feel reasonably safe but are generally not done in programs, things like hitchhiking (on safe backroads), dumpster diving, skinny dipping, stealth sleeping in towns and so forth.
  • We surround students with inspiring folks who live very alternative lives and often question traditional ways of thinking.
  • We are willing to embrace improvisation and the unplanned.  Sometimes that leads to discomfort; sometimes to magic, but regardless, we value the skills and ways of being that come from willing to be surprised.
group of young people with backpacks on smiling in nature


Simple Living 

Most of the houses around us are off-the-grid, made out of strawbale or cob or tires,  and collect rain water for the house.  When not traveling, we try to eat mostly local unprocessed food.  We butcher our own meat.  We are glad to use a composting toilet, shower outside in solar heated water, and walk or bike when we can.

We live this way partially because it aligns with our values but also because it's fun and costs less.  Really it's about feeling more free and more connected to each other, the land and ourselves.  It's a practice, and along the way we laugh and cry and forgive.

Adventuring & Laughing

Adventure is a frame of mind.  It can happen anywhere and anytime when we say “yes!”  to a thing.  Maybe it's to  helping the neighbor fix their roof, or spending an entire night mostly naked  around a campfire eating cactus fruit or going a full week eating only local food.

Our intent is to lead a life that feels more like an adventure and less like an obligation, more like play and less like school or work.  Our goal is to have the courage to choose things that might be uncomfortable, unpopular, or unknown but feel deeply aligned.

Being Authentic 

We live in a community full of people who have stepped off the well-trodden path in order to be true to themselves.  People who build their own houses and rarely work normal jobs, people who often question traditional views on school, career, money, marriage, and so forth.

Although we often question rules, we value our word and each other.   We find it important to see beyond superficial differences and seek out deep conversation and connections, especially with those who may have differing political views. We get involved with local issues and care for community and place.

Options for After the Program

We end it November 17 in Oaxaca.  What's next?  You could fly home from Oaxaca or Mexico City, but you also could stay or travel overland to Guatemala or invite your friends and family to Oaxaca, or...

Work a Ski Town Job.  Here in Colorado we are surrounded by ski towns like Crested Butte, Breckenridge, Vail, and Aspen.  If you start months early, it is not too challenging to get a job that pays you and gives you a ski pass and a place to live. Some people get ski jobs (teaching kids, putting people on lifts, shoveling, etc.) but there are also restaurant jobs, room service, etc.

Go to Language school in Guatemala or Oaxaca.  For not much money you can go stay with a family and study Spanish while being part of the Language School Community.  This exists in Oaxaca but Guatemala is a couple bus rides to the south and Xela, Antiqua and San Pedro are full of affordable and quality language schools.  It's the fast track to good Spanish and fun community and adventure.

Plan the next adventure with your new friends from our Program.  You'll be in a cool place with friends so why not plan to continue on and go to the Yucatan or Costa Rica or to work on that farm or wherever.  You'll have all fall to plan what you want,  Many of our graduates end up adventuring or living together.


a young female student is wearing red top smiling


Belfast, ME

When I first arrived at the High Desert Center I could never have imagined how much I would grow to love and value all those unfamiliar faces I met in the airport. I wouldn’t have even dreamed of all the laugh-till-you-can’t-breathe moments, the sense of support and excitement every time we accomplished something together, and the tears both of sadness and of joy we would all share.

A male teen student smiling wearing floral shirt outdoors in the Colorado desert


Nevada City, CA

If you are looking for a Gap Year program where you expect the unexpected, this is it. Be prepared for something that will change you in ways you never anticipated. This program is an amazing combination of outdoor leadership skills, emotional growth, and community building, which makes for an amazing Gap Year that could never be repeated.


Today! We are currently accepting applications.

Have more questions:

Where will you sleep? What will you eat? What will each day look like?

Can I Afford a Gap Year?

When we ask our students why they chose us, many say words like “community,” “philosophy” or “strong recommendations.”  Another thing we commonly hear is that our programs are affordable. Read more about how the HDC offers the most affordable gap year program out there.

A group of young people pose for a gap year program photo, looking hip and silly